Ruck Marching For Hiking Fitness And Fat Loss
Updated: May 21, 2021
We all know that we would benefit from some sort of sustained cardio conditioning for both health and to improve our hiking. That doesn't mean that it makes running or the stair climber any more fun. Cycling is a good option for general health but doesn't carry over to hiking well as you aren't subjected to gravity and the eccentric loading that comes with absorbing impact.
If like me you find running beats you up and you don't have the attention span to spend a ton of time on a stair climber machine then ruck marching might be exactly what you need.
What Is Ruck Marching?
Ruck marching is a term borrowed from the military where they condition soldiers both physically and mentally to be doing long hikes with a heavy pack on. The term refers to the pack which used to be called a rucksack, hence ruck march. While the image of the overloaded soldier humping for miles might not seem very attractive, it is a very effective form of exercise that doesn't need anything other than supportive footwear and a load to carry, either in the form of a backpack or a weighted vest.
In a modern context, nothing will condition you for hiking better than going on walks while carrying a load in a pack. When overtime you build up to carrying more in training than you would carry on a hike or backpacking trip, you will find your trips much easier and more enjoyable. This increased fitness will mean you can either go on longer trips or have more energy at the end of the day for activities since you didn't have to work as hard.
Ruck marching or weighted hikes burns almost as many calories as running for the duration while reducing the impact on the joints.
Benefits of Ruck Marching
1. Cardiovascular Fitness
If your goal is to hike longer or just generally better health then having better cardiovascular fitness is a must. Ruck marching is a great way to build this. By walking with weight gets your heart rate up and builds endurance in the hiking specific muscles. The workload is similar to running without having to actually run.
2. Strengthening Connective Tissue
By regularly stressing your body by walking with a heavy load you will also build up the ankles, knees, and hips. Connective tissue takes longer to strengthen than muscles do but by repeatedly stressing the body over time you will help build them up.
3. Build mental toughness
Long ruck marches with a heavy load can get uncomfortable. By subjecting yourself to discomfort you will build a tolerance to it. Doing hard things will make you tougher which you can carry into your everyday life.
4. Help fix postural issues
People sit and hunch forward way too much for good health. Ruck marching naturally has you upright with your shoulders back. Postural muscles in the back engage to support the load which over time will carry over to when you aren't carrying your pack.
5. Reduce the risk of injury
Compared to running, ruck marching has much less impact. By reducing the impact while still subjecting the body to a steady load of metabolic stress you get the fitness benefits without the same risk of overuse injuries.
If you are a larger athlete then this is a good option as you get the conditioning with less impact and therefore lower risk of injury.
6. Burn body fat
To lose fat you have to be in a caloric deficit and adding ruck marches to your training regime is a good way to help create that deficit. Ruck marching burns almost as many calories per hour as running does but is easier on the body so you can do it longer.
Depending on how much weight you have in your pack, your size, and the terrain you walk on, the number of calories your burn per hour will vary but rucking will burn up to twice as many calories as walking unweighted.
For example, a 200 lbs person with a 40 lbs who rucks up and down hills for an hour at a 5 km per hour pace will burn around 750 calories. A 150 lbs person with the same pack weight and distance will burn about 600 calories per hour.
To lose 1 lb of fat you need to have a caloric deficit of 3500 calories so if you do 2 or 3 ruck marches per week you are halfway there.
How To Carry The Load
The easiest way to start ruck marching is to load up a backpack. A backpacking pack or military load-carrying system with a frame and hip belt will make it more comfortable to carry heavier loads. As a backpacker, I just use one of the internal frame packs I already have.
If you are looking for a pack just for ruck marching, consider a surplus military pack as you can often find them pretty cheap. You can also use a school bag without a frame but it will put more pressure on your shoulders and lower back as the load can't be transferred to the hips.
Another popular option due to its versatility is a weighted vest. These look like body armor but instead of kevlar, they have multiple pockets that hold little bags of sand or lead shot. This allows you to customize the weight of the vest. It can also be used to make bodyweight exercises like pushups and squats heavier. Since the weight is loaded on the upper body with no hip belt, the lower back and core get more work since they have to engage more.
What To Use As Weight
Whatever you use for weight, you want it to be in smaller increments so you can gradually build up the load. I use old vinyl and cement weight plates that I had sitting around. Place a blanket or towel between them to space out the weight and keep them from banging together.
Other options can be 2-liter soda bottles filled with water or sand. Filled with water they weigh 4.4 lbs each, whereas 2 liters of sand are about 6.5 lbs.
If you are going to use sand, a funnel can make it easier to fill the bottles.
Footwear for Ruck Marching
It is a good idea to use a supportive hiking shoe or boot especially as you work to weights over 40 lbs. Your feet need both cushion and support. If you do weighted hikes offroad then you will also need the extra traction of hiking footwear.
The surface you walk on will vary the impact and repetitive injury risk.
Concrete sidewalks are the hardest but tend to be relatively level except at driveways and crosswalks.
Asphalt is softer but usually slopes down toward the sides of the road to facilitate drainage so make sure you balance how much time you spend on each side of the road.
Gravel paths and dirt roads are great for ruck marches as they are both lower impact and usually don't have irregularities that can cause a twisted ankle.
Offroad hiking trails can be anything from an easy trail through a flat forest to steep or rugged terrain. I would avoid any technical trails when just out for training. These ruck marches are for training purposes and the novel terrain isn't worth the increased injury risk. Save this type of terrain for actual hikes that you can enjoy and use the increased fitness you have built.
Sandy beaches or dunes are excellent for increasing the training load. The impact is low while the effort is high. Limit your time on the sand in the beginning as it will be demanding. Build up gradually like you would with any other intensification technique.
I have experimented with minimalist shoes for ruck marches and would only recommend it on sand or grass fields. The lack of support and cushion can beat up your feet on hard surfaces. The risk of rolled ankles increases on trails as well.
If you live near a sandy beach then barefoot is an option to build foot strength. This way you get extra resistance and don't get sand in your shoes. Just walk one direction and walk back the other to balance the side load on your ankles, knees and hips due to the slope.
How To Begin Ruck Training
Ruck marching is one of the easiest activities to get started in as you only have to put weight in a pack, put on your shoes and go for a walk.
To begin with start with 10-20 lbs for 30 minutes on level or rolling terrain. In the beginning, do this only once or twice a week supplementing the ruck marching with cardio and strength training. Depending on your level of fitness training experience you can progress quickly or start with a little more distance but be careful not to overdo it as the load and type of stress are new to your body.
How To Progress
With any form of training, you need to progressively overload to continue to make progress. The key is to add small increments of weight, time, or difficulty. If you keep doing the same workout your body will stop adapting.
I suggest starting with adding weight then time but if you are a backpacker or follow a regular training program then a combination of the two can manageable. Add 5 lbs every two weeks and 5 minutes to your time on the alternating weeks.
1. Add Weight
Start with 10-20 lbs then add 3-5 lbs every week or two. Once you are up to a maximum of 20-25% of your body weight then look to other progressions as excessive loads can increase the risk of injury.
2. Add Duration
Start with 30-minute sessions and add 5 minutes per week. For general fitness, there isn't much benefit going over 60 minutes but if you want to lose weight or build up to longer hikes then one longer session a week can be beneficial.
3. Go Faster
Walking faster is more demanding. If you have an activity tracker, either a watch or on your phone, you can time and measure how fast you're going. Try to go a little faster or maintain a specific heart rate which as you get fitter will mean you have to go faster to maintain it.
I have measured route that is 5.5 km and every week or two I try to set a personal record. While it is in the city it has a number of hills, some long and others steep as well as a big set of stairs.
This will only go so far as there is a speed that walking turns into a jog. I would suggest only working up to this point but don't jog with weight on as the risk of injury isn't worth it.
4. Hike Harder Terrain
When you first start ruck marching it should be on relatively flat terrain. As you become conditioned you can move on to hills, stairs, trails, or sand. All of these terrain variations will make your workout harder.
When on trails it is a good idea to use trekking poles to increase stability and reduce the load on the joints during descents.
5. Ruck More Frequently
Instead of twice per week, you can add a third or fourth session. It is a good idea to have a day between ruck marches generally so you can recover. If you perform strength training workouts it is a good idea to either do it on the same day you work legs or a few days before or after so your legs aren't getting overly fatigued.
I will occasionally do multiple days in a row for two or three weeks to increase training load but I will have that followed by a deload week of decreased weight, duration, and frequency to allow for recovery. When looking at a training program we need to analyze the weekly volume to figure overall training load.
6. Add Movement Variations
Once you have reached a point where you can't add weight or time and are ruck marching on the most challenging terrain you have available then adding harder movement variations will help build more fitness.
This can include adding squats, lunges, or modified burpees in the middle of your march.
One of my favorites is to set a timer to beep every 5 minutes and do 10-15 squats with the pack on. This works out to 120-180 weighted squats over the course of an hour hike. This both taxes the legs and gets the heart rate up more than walking alone.
Another option is to add walking lunges. This can be set with a timer as well. It will build strength, muscular endurance, and jack up your heart rate. This can really help with mountain hiking that involves a lot of uneven steps uphill. Plus it will do a lot to build sexy legs and butt which is great regardless of gender.
The modified burpees are done when I walk through a football or soccer field. They involve going from standing to the pushup position and back up with your pack on. Unlike burpees, this is a controlled movement with no jumping. If you are particularly strong then do a push-up or two when at the bottom position. Getting down and up with a load on your back works just about everything.
Beginner Ruck Program
If you are new to fitness or just looking to add ruck marching to your program then start small. Begin with 30-minute hikes with 10-20 lbs. Space the workouts evenly during the week.
Stick to flat, non-technical terrain for the first few months so your body can adapt to the new stimulus.
If this is your only exercise then I would suggest adding an unweighted walk between your ruck marches. Adding a strength training program would be beneficial as well.
If you are working out at home then check out some of our Kettlebell training articles. Since the start of the pandemic, we have been almost exclusively training at home or outdoors which the kettlebell lends itself to very well.
Progress by adding 5 lbs to your pack every two weeks and 5 minutes to your hikes on the in-between weeks until you are up to 20-25% of your body weight and 60 minutes of duration. At this point, you will be ready to move on to the intermediate workouts.
Intermediate Ruck Program
At this point add a third ruck march per week. This should start at 30 minutes on hilly terrain or incorporate stair climbs if you don't have hills in your area. Increase the time of this workout by 5 minutes per week for up to 60 minutes.
Of the other two workouts, one will stay at 60 minutes while you should increase the time of the other up to 2 hours. Increase by 5 minutes per week so your body has time to adapt.
Monday - 30 Minute Hilly Ruck March increasing to 60 minutes
Thursday - 60 Minute Ruck March on Easy Terrain
Saturday - Long Ruck March Starting at 60 minutes and increasing up to 2 hours.
Advanced Ruck Program
When you have maxed out your intermediate program it is time to look at your specific goals. With training, there are countless progressions but the ones listed below will be good to get you well on your fitness journey. Periodize your training by varying your program every 2-3 months.
Improve Hiking and Backpacking
4 sessions per week.
2 X 60 minutes on flat to rolling terrain
1 X 60-minute intensity session with squats, lunges, or modified burpees every 5 minutes. Start with 10 reps and add 2 per week until you are at 20 per set
1 X 120 minute Plus Long session. Add 5 minutes per week until you are at 3 hours
4 Sessions per Week
3 X 60 minutes on flat to rolling terrain
1 X 60-minute intensity session with squats, lunges, or modified burpees every 5 minutes. Start with 10 reps and add 2 per week until you are at 20 per set
This is the process of decreasing the intensity and volume of training for a period to allow the body to fully recover. I usually plan a deload every 8 weeks but it will depend on how your body reacts. In many cases, life gets in the way and gives you a forced deload so plan for every 4-8 weeks but adjust if you are super tired or sore then you might need it more often.
I suggest cutting your training load by 25% in both volume and weight when you deload and add an extra day completely off during that week.
The Wrap Up
Ruck marching might be the best conditioning available for hiking and backpacking as it builds sport-specific fitness. It builds cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance while reducing the impact compared to running so it is a good option for the long term. If your goal is to lose fat as well as get fit then this is a great way to burn a ton of calories.
Ruck marching is for hikers and people who hate cardio. Get started today and you'll start seeing the benefits within a few weeks.